How present are you for your children? When I ask this question, the response is usually both quick and vague, something like, “I’m pretty present, but I wish I could be more.” Most of us go to great lengths to be there for our kids. We provide them with a safe environment, we take them to museums and to the park and to the library. We attend story hours and play groups and make healthy meals and provide opportunities for art and interactions with other kids and help with homework. We work hard to ensure that their lives are full and busy. In fact, some of us can run ourselves ragged filling our children’s day with these opportunities.
But is that all there is to it? Is this the same as being present? And what does “being present” do for the parent?
When I think of being present with my children, I think of the times when I am truly and genuinely focused on them, in the moment. They have my full attention. I am not thinking about my phone, or my work, or dinner or the house payment. I’m not thinking about whether we are late to an activity or whether their lives are being developmentally enriched or whether I am saying the right thing or doing what my other mom friends would do. In fact, in these moments, I am not thinking of parenting at all. In these moments, when I am truly present, I am simply there, with them, doing whatever the moment calls for, while everything else falls away.
This weekend I took my boys to the park. I automatically took my place on the side of the jungle gym and watched them while they climbed and slid and swung. My mind wandered to work and what I was going to make for dinner and the laundry that was piling up. I looked at the time and nodded and smiled as the boys continually called out, “Mama, watch!” “Look, Mama!” “Want to see this?” That was when I realized that they didn’t really need me to see them go down the slide. Their constant calling was kid language for “Be Present, Be Here With Me Now.” I turned off my busy mind and started to play with them. I mean really play. I became a yellow moon monster hopping through the lava. I chased and got chased and giggled and actually participated in their game. I played. It wasn’t until I saw another parent laugh at me that I realized I had been completely engrossed in the silliness of the game and the interactions with my children. It felt amazing. And notably different from how our outing to the park started.
Another opportunity occurred last week during the hectic madness that comes around 5:30 every night. While I struggled to get dinner on the table, my youngest repeatedly came into the kitchen with a new “owie” which required tending to. There were no bruises, blood or bumps, and my half-hearted attempt to show empathy while making the spaghetti sauce was obviously not doing it for him. He would go back to his activity for a minute, only to return with another owie. First his toe, then his elbow, then his knee. I found myself feeling frustrated and annoyed, wishing he would give me 20 minutes to finish dinner. My reactions to him got less and less empathic, while his attempts to get my attention got louder and more frequent. And then I realized, he didn’t really need a kiss on his elbow; it was kid language for “Be Present, Be Here With Me Now.” So I did. I put down my knife, turned off the burner on the stove and plopped down on the kitchen floor. “Do you need me? What can I do for you?” I asked. He jumped into my lap and nestled his head into my neck, his arms wrapped around me. He held on for dear life. I have no idea what was going on inside his heart, but he felt sad and I found myself holding him tighter. I held him quietly for two or three minutes until he pulled his head away and looked me in the eye. “I love you, Mama” he said, smiled and stroked my cheek. Following his lead I offered him the same, love and gentle touches to his face and head. After a few more minutes, he started laughing, hopped up and ran into the living room to play. I got to finish making dinner without any more owies.
When I consider these two moments, I realize that there is a big difference between providing opportunities for my children and being truly and genuinely present in the moment. Providing opportunities is important. But, the truth is that forced to choose between an “opportunity” with a distracted parent or a few moments of your undivided attention, our kids are going to choose us. And when I think back over the week, it is these moments that stand out for me, too. These are the moments when I really feel the rewards of parenting: these unplanned, unscheduled, unstructured moments when I am truly connected to my children.
But, then there is reality. Dinner has to get made, bills have to get paid, laundry must get done. The kids are fighting, work is overwhelming, schedules are full and sometimes we just feel like there isn’t any more of us to go around. How can we be present with our children when it doesn’t feel like there is even room to take a breath? It would be so great if someone could just tell us the secret to easy, sure-thing parenting.
Well, I’m sorry to say, there isn’t a quick fix, magic word or parenting technique that works in all situations with all kids. What I can say is that finding a way to be present, for even a few moments a day, is the closest thing to a magic wand that I have found. So what is it about being present that works?
1) Being truly present tells your child, “I’m here,” “You’re safe,” “You’re valid”: In the end, this is what a child needs to know. That they are loved, safe, secure, valid. This is what builds healthy, strong, resilient individuals. Our children need to know that they are connected to us and that we are connected to them. And the truth is, they need this more than they need another scheduled activity.
2) A little goes a long way: Four or five minutes of undivided attention can work wonders and allow a child to feel safe and secure. This feeling of being loved and heard and safe stays with them and bolsters their confidence and ability to trust themselves, which may result in more independent play and give us time to make dinner.
3) Being present is about quality, not quantity: There isn’t a magic number of minutes per day that children need. Don’t focus on the clock. When the moment is over, you will know it. Both you and your child will feel ready to move to the next moment. Sometimes it almost feels like a magic trick.
4) Being present benefits the parent as much as the child: Parenting can be an unending, thankless job of never ending demands and needs. Sometimes I find myself thinking, “Really, you need to eat again? I just fed you!” Being present allows us to really experience the connection that we have with our children. The joy, the love, the wonder, the fun. Yes, they need to eat…again. But, they also want to look into your eyes and stroke your cheek, and that feels amazing.
5) Practicing being present allows us to feel the difference: Start to become aware of how present (or not) you are during your parenting moments. It may be surprising how much being present in the moment may impact our ability to know what our children need and to respond to them in a meaningful way, which in turn has a direct correlation with less tantrums, melt downs and power struggles.
So how can we start to increase the amount of time we are actually present for our children?
1) Set an intention: Choose one of the activities that you have planned for your children and make an intention to be truly present and engaged throughout it. Commit that this time will be screen free (no TV, phone, texting, email, computer, Facebook, iPad). Really challenge yourself to focus only on your children. Sit on the floor, climb the slide, put yourself in their world. You may be surprised at how it looks from their perspective. Intentionally be present; mind, body and spirit!
2) Respond to a frustrating moment by becoming fully present and engaged: Often it is the times when I am at the end of my rope, frustrated, pulling my hair out that I know I need to take a moment to fully engage. Whatever I am doing to try to “get control” of things isn’t working, and I’m missing the boat. It’s likely that my kids are trying to tell me something (in kid language, which can often be tricky) that I’m too distracted to hear. We are in a power struggle and I’m probably losing. It is in these moments that I know if I stop, breathe and connect with my child, things will probably feel a whole lot different. Unfortunately, these are the times that I feel the least capable of being present; these are also the times that it is the most productive and rewarding for everyone.
3) Participate in cooperative play with your child: Many parents can tell you that they were aware of the moment that their child began engaging in cooperative play (engaging in play that depends on the interaction between two or more children) rather than just parallel play (children playing side-by-side, but not acknowledging each other). But, how often do we engage in cooperative play with our kids? Try it! One idea is to choose an obscure object and ask, “What should we do with this?” inviting your child to play with you. Rather than sitting back and observing, or directing or commenting, go on and actually play. The connection that develops may surprise you. I once asked my child what we should do with wood chips. “Build a boat.” Obviously. So we did, and, as we built, he asked about countries I have traveled to and wanted to hear stories of my life before he was born. We talked and built and dreamed and imagined. All because I was prepared to really be present for a few minutes.
In the end, remember that childhood only happens once. These moments are fleeting and while I will soon forget about the brilliant art project I set up or the fact that dinner was on the table at exactly 6 pm, I will likely always remember my stint as a yellow moon monster and that moment of tenderness on the kitchen floor. I will treasure the moments when they said, “Be Present, Be Here With Me Now!” and I listened. Those are the moments that make parenting great and those are the moments that can make us great parents.